Scientists in North Texas have identified the cells that cause hair to turn gray and to go bald – findings that could one day help identify possible treatments.
Researchers from the University of Texas Southewestern Medical Center accidentally stumbled upon the discovery while studying a rare genetic disease that causes tumors to grow on nerves.
"When we saw the mice that we were expecting to form a tumor turned gray, we were really excited!" said Dr. Lu Le, an associate professor of dermatology at UT Southwestern.
The researchers found that a protein called KROX20, more commonly associated with nerve development, switches on in skin cells that become the hair shaft.
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These hair cells then produce another protein called stem cell factor (SCF). In mice, these two proteins turned out to be important for baldness and graying.
When researchers deleted the SCF gene in mice, the animals' hair turned white; when they deleted the cells that produce KROX20, the mice stopped growing hair and eventually went bald, according to the study.
"We were really excited because as a dermatologist, I treat patients with hair disease, so when we found the root cause of why hair turns gray and hair loss, we just cannot let it go," Le said.
More research is needed to understand if the process works similarly in humans, and Le and his colleagues plan to start studying it in people.
Le hopes that, armed with this knowledge, scientists can develop a topical compound or transplant the necessary gene to hair follicles to correct these cosmetic problems.
Researchers say the findings could one day also provide answers about why humans age in general as hair graying and hair loss are among the first signs of aging.
At Hair Revival Studio in Dallas, clients say the possibility of a treatment for gray hair and baldness sounds remarkable.
"Everyone wants to have a good head of hair. There's a lot of confidence that comes with that," said Brandon Stewart.